ESA presents space solutions at post-Kyoto climate summit
Two months from now comes a landmark day in planetary history: the Kyoto Protocol finally comes into legal force on 16 February 2005. However Kyoto was intended only as an initial step in mitigating climate change: a 6000-strong Buenos Aires gathering due to conclude today has spent a fortnight discussing follow-up strategies, with ESA among them.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change aims to lessen the effects of climate change by setting targets for industrialised countries to reduce emissions of heat-trapping 'greenhouse' gases including carbon dioxide. Fossil fuel burning and land use change since the start of the Industrial Revolution has led to the highest level of atmospheric carbon dioxide for 160 000 years.
The fact that human-induced change in the make-up of the air is leading inexorably to higher global temperatures is a settled matter of scientific fact. What remains to be settled is the likely future extent of climate change, and what collective strategy should be undertaken to follow Kyoto.
Since 6 December delegates from almost 200 countries have been gathered in the Argentinean capital to discuss this problem: how to mitigate climate change, and how to adapt. This event is the latest in a sequence of annual gatherings, known as the Tenth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 10).
With Kyoto on the verge of becoming effective, countries that have ratified the Protocol - and therefore having committed themselves to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases - have been discussing and negotiating the details of what information should be required to report to show compliance.
ESA began working with Kyoto parties on using space resources within this area back in 2001, within its TESEO (Treaty Enforcement Services Using Earth Observation) initiative. The Agency now has seven European countries as active users in two dedicated Earth Observation-based projects, Kyoto Inventory and Forest Monitoring.
Under the terms of Kyoto, signatories are allowed to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions by stocking carbon in so-called 'sinks', of which forests are the most significant.
Planting new woodland or extending old forests, and by managing them well, helps to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. Conversely if a country is cutting parts of its forests – for wood, or to make room for agriculture or urban expansion – or they are burnt down then this is accounted for as additional emissions.
Therefore the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol must report the location and extent of changes in forest cover and land use are taking place. Many countries do not currently possess such information and are investigating how to achieve it. ESA is working with such countries in order to demonstrate how satellites can help fill gaps in data on land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) in a cost-effective manner.
ESA's Kyoto Inventory is a pilot project of the Agency's Data User Programme, using satellite data in support of carbon reporting. Forest Monitoring is part of a suite of space-based information services making up ESA's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Services Element, designed to support Kyoto reporting as well as serving as a tool for woodland management and monitoring environmental indicators.
ESA is also carrying out a scientific project called GLOBCARBON, which is combining results from all available space-based sensors to monitor the global carbon flux over a ten-year period from 1998, with the aim of increasing the accuracy of global climate models.
Other related activities include its World Fire Atlas and its Tropospheric Emission Monitoring Internet Service (TEMIS) that provides near-real time measurements of atmospheric chemistry.
Another project called CONTRAILS is using satellites to study aircraft condensation trails with a view to assessing their impact on the climate. The UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) highlighted the importance of this subject over the course of the meeting.
During COP 10, ESA representatives were busy communicating these activities, and reaching out to potential new users of Earth Observation services. This was the third Conference of the Parties that ESA has attended. The Agency maintained a dedicated stand throughout the event.
ESA also participated in a wide range of different COP-10 side events, hosted by the Group on Earth Observations Initiative (GEO), the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), the UK Met Office and the Arctic Council. During one event focusing on the role of Earth Observation, the Agency carried out a presentation along with representatives of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and French satellite builder Alcatel.